Language instructors at the university level in the United States are often in one of three situations:
- They are language instructors with experience teaching in their countries of origin, but little or no training in the teaching approaches commonly used in the United States
- They are professionals in other fields who are native speakers of the language, but are not trained as teachers
- They are graduate students who have extensive knowledge of language, literature, and culture, but are not trained as language teachers
These instructors often must begin their work in the classroom with little or no guidance to help them appreciate which methods work, how, and why. In response, they may fall back on an outdated model for understanding language teaching and language learning.
Older model: Language learning is a process of transmission. Teacher transmits knowledge. Learner is recipient. Knowledge goes from instructor's brain into student's brain. This teacher-centered model views the teacher as active and the student as fundamentally passive. The teacher is responsible for transmitting all of the information to the students. The teacher talks; the students listen and absorb (or take a nap). The teacher-centered model may be attractive to new language instructors for several reasons:
- It is the method by which they were taught, so it's familiar.
- It makes sense: The teacher should be the focus of the classroom, since the teacher knows the language and the students do not.
- It requires relatively little preparation: All the teacher needs to do is present the material outlined in the appropriate chapter of the book (turn the pages).
- It requires relatively little thought about students or student activities: All the students simply listen to the same (teacher) presentation, then do related exercises.
However, experienced language instructors who reflect on their teaching practice have observed that the teacher-centered model has two major drawbacks:
- It involves only a minority of students in actual language learning
- It gives students knowledge about the language, but does not necessarily enable them to use it for purposes that interest them
To overcome these drawbacks, language teaching professionals in the United States and elsewhere have adopted a different model of teaching and learning.
Newer model: Language learning is a process of construction conducted mainly by the learner but facilitated by the instructor. Learner develops ability to use the language for specific communication purposes. The teacher models language use and facilitates students' development of language skills. In this learner-centered model, both student and teacher are active participants who share responsibility for the student's learning. Instructor and students work together to identify how students expect to use the language. The instructor models correct and appropriate language use, and students then use the language themselves in practice activities that simulate real communication situations. The active, joint engagement of students and teacher leads to a dynamic classroom environment in which teaching and learning become rewarding and enjoyable. Language instructors who have never experienced learner-centered instruction can find it daunting in several ways.
- It requires more preparation time: Instructors must consider students' language learning goals, identify classroom activities that will connect those with the material presented in the textbook, and find appropriate real-world materials to accompany them.
- It is mysterious: It's not clear what, exactly, an instructor does to make a classroom learner centered.
- It feels like it isn't going to work: When students first are invited to participate actively, they may be slow to get started as they assess the tasks and figure out classroom dynamics.
- It feels chaotic: Once student start working in small groups, the classroom becomes noisy and the instructor must be comfortable with the idea that students may make mistakes that are not heard and corrected.
- It sounds like a bad idea: The phrase "learner centered" makes it sound as though the instructor is not in control of the classroom.
This final point is an important one. In fact, in an effective learner-centered classroom, the instructor has planned the content of all activities, has set time limits on them, and has set them in the context of instructor-modeled language use. The instructor is not always the center of attention, but is still in control of students' learning activities.